Thomas Becket was a hugely popular saint in the medieval period. He was murdered on 29 December 1170 by a group of soldiers who thought they were pleasing the king. After his death, claims were made of miracles performed in his name and he was eventually declared a saint. As his murder happened on 29 December, this meant that Christians paused their Christmas festivities to honour Thomas Becket.
What made his murder so shocking was that Thomas Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was the most senior cleric in the English church. Nobody had ever dared to kill such a man. Even in the brutality of the Middle Ages. Yet, just a few days after Christmas Day, Becket was hacked to pieces at his altar. The attack was so savage that his brains reportedly spilt on to the floor.
Remembering Thomas Becket at Christmas
Before the Industrial Revolution two hundred years ago, we were a rural society. And holidays were more frequent and longer. That certainly applied to Christmas where people celebrated for twelve days – starting on 25 December and ending on 6 January. This was nearly a fortnight of raucous drinking and feasting. On the final day, there would be a Twelfth Night cake bringing the Yuletide feasting to an end.
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Celebrating the murder of Thomas Becket at Christmas
On the fifth day of Christmas, Christians paused in their merry making to remember Thomas Becket – killed on that day in his cathedral. This had been an act of sacrilege against the church and an appalling act to commit during Christmas.
It really was a misjudged act of violence. The murderous knights thought their act would please King Henry II of England who had fallen out badly with Thomas Becket. The two men once been friends. But Henry wanted more control over the church and Thomas proved to be uncooperative. This made Henry furious – and he had a notoriously foul temper.
In a fit of anger, the king yelled:
“Will nobody rid me of this turbulent priest!”
And so the Christmas murder of Thomas Becket was set in motion. Four knights – Richard FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton – took Henry at his word. Eager to please their sovereign lord, they made their way to Canterbury and committed the terrible deed. The date of their crime was the 29 December.
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That was the fifth day of the twelve days of Christmas. As the shocking news spread across Christendom, there was a widespread clamour to make Thomas a saint. And so he was canonised by the pope not long after his death. The 29 December became his special day and a time when Christians would put down their festive food and drink to commemorate a bloody murder in Canterbury in the year 1170.